May 28, 2010 | Wall Street Journal Europe
Honoring Neda Soltan’s Memory
On June 1 Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will enter the majestic halls of the European Parliament to appear before its foreign relations committee. When he does, what could be more fitting than for the parliament to welcome him with a giant photo of Neda Soltan—the young protester shot by an Iranian government militiaman while she was peacefully demonstrating against Iran's rigged June 2009 election.
The European Parliament is not known for bold action, but it does have some bold members. One of them is Fiorello Provera, an Italian law maker who last December called on his colleagues to hang her photo in the parliament's entrance, in Brussels' Place du Luxembourg, alongside the picture of Burmese dissident Aung Sang Suu Kyi. Mr. Provera quickly gathered enough support from other members to submit his proposal to the parliament's presidency.
But the body, ever so solicitous when hosting Iran's henchmen for dialogue's sake, sat on Mr. Provera's suggestion for five months—and then rejected it. The parliamentarians will gladly welcome Mr. Mottaki, who speaks on behalf of Soltan's murderers and shares responsibility for her death. But apparently a small, purely symbolic gesture honoring Iran's most famous freedom fighter is too much for the group.
The official rejection is all the more puzzling because it comes, signed personally, from Parliament President Jerzy Buzek of Poland, a former communist-era dissident. Mr. Buzek should know what price freedom exacts on dissidents, having stood himself on the frontlines against Soviet totalitarianism. He knows that even the smallest nod can offer comfort to those standing alone against a ferocious and oppressive regime; and he knows that appeasement never wins tyrants over to the cause of freedom, nor even tempers their cruelty. Yet the institution he presides will roll out the red carpet for Iran's dignitaries, without daring to unfurl a poster for their victims.
Mr. Buzek's fear, he tells Mr. Provera in a letter, is that this token for Neda would harm her family. Mr. Buzek goes on to advocate caution, given the “brutality of the regime,” and cites news reports warning that Soltan's family “has already come under pressure from the authorities” and “might not wish her portrait to be used as you suggest and might be put at the risk of reprisals.”
He's right that the regime is brutal—so why invite its spokesman rather than confront its leaders? Mr. Buzek is also right that Tehran has tried to silence those who loved Neda. So it seems sensible to ask her family before going ahead with Mr. Provera's proposal. Of course, had Mr. Buzek bothered to do just this, he would have found that not only do they not object to such initiatives, they welcome them.
Unlike Mr. Buzek, Mr. Provera's office did contact Neda Soltan's family through intermediaries. The answer came back almost instantly: “We would be proud,” her father said. There was no hesitation, and no fear of consequences, though the price for his defiance could be much higher than that which the Parliament might pay for briefly annoying Iran's foreign minister.
Then again, Soltan's family sits in Tehran, at the mercy of Neda's assassins, not in the far more treacherous terrain of Place du Luxembourg. Thank heaven someone is doing the moral calculus for them—someone who doesn't know what it means to lose a daughter and watch the world forget.
Soltan's death compelled outsiders to realize the tyrannical nature of Iran's regime. It forced world leaders to reconsider their cozy economic relations with Tehran, and prompted them to consider that their best bet for security might not be a nuclear deal with Khamenei & Co, but rather a victory for their democratic challengers. Yet the European Parliament, the only truly democratic pan-European institution, would rather avoid offending the dictatorship than to commit this most trifling act in Soltan's name.
As Soltan's mother put it to Persian magazine Rooz Online, “Neda's martyrdom is the symbol of freedom.” Soltan's family would be honored if the European Parliament chose to remember her publicly. But the real honor would be for the European Parliament. Here's hoping it will reconsider.
Mr. Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of “Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb” (Profile Books, 2009).